Importance of Education in Enhancing Social Mobility: The Need for Continuing to Improve Access to Education and Adopting Good Pedagogy
Social Mobility as Key Driving Force for Inclusive Growth
Social mobility based on meritocracy increases competiveness and promotes long-term growth. The prime engine for social mobility is education.
Focus on education and trust the market forces, and you will achieve both growth and inclusiveness. Searching for equality through redistribution of wealth tends to hamper growth and fails to create long-term inclusiveness. In this contribution to the workshop on inclusive growth, I discuss a number of factors in the field of education that are important to promoting social mobility and long-term growth.
In this paper for OECD workshop on inclusive growth, I would like to share my thoughts on social mobility and argue that education is the prime engine for enhancing upward mobility. Social mobility, the individuals’ ability to move from one socioeconomic class to another, reflects the society’s justice, fairness and openness, and is the key to inclusive and balanced growth. In modern societies, education has become an increasingly crucial factor in determining which jobs people enter and in deciding their socioeconomic position. Therefore, quality education can serve as a springboard for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to leap into an upper social stratum and contribute to greater social mobility. Expanding and improving public education system has been vital to promoting social mobility thus far. In the second half of the 20th century, most OECD nations witnessed high absolute rates of social mobility primarily due to relocation of jobs from manual labor to professional sectors. Such mobility was greatly facilitated by comprehensive educational reforms that expanded public school systems and endorsed the kind of education that would prepare individuals for professional careers. Although we do not expect a comparable shift in the occupational structure in terms of scale in the near future and a consequent radical increase in social mobility, I believe that we can continue to promote mobility through expansion of and improvement in the education systems, given that recruitment in the job market remains overall meritocratic.
Although providing educational opportunities for underprivileged youths through expansion of public education system has been instrumental in promoting social mobility, we must recognize that it is not a panacea to social inequalities. In the past, efforts to reduce the achievement gaps among students of different economic backgrounds have focused on building sound school systems, but not necessarily on improving the quality of education itself. Governments in many countries especially in Europe and
North America have
taken quite drastic interventionist approaches in reforming the school systems,
but they have been usually hands-off when it came to pedagogy, leaving it to
the teachers’ discretion. We must continue improving and expanding public
school systems, but now it is also time for a different type of educational
reform, one targeted at the quality of teaching. We should encourage teachers
to adopt good methods of instruction that are most effective in helping low-achieving
students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We must make more resources available to
teachers that can be utilized in classroom initiatives directed at
low-achieving students. We should also train teachers to help students
understand the importance of education in breaking the cycle of
intergenerational poverty and motivate them to pursue higher education.
Furthermore, in my opinion, a good pedagogy must also emphasize developing students’ emotional strength. Teachers should help students from disadvantaged backgrounds become more resilient in the face of failures and challenges. Many researches have reported that underprivileged students’ inability to deal with setbacks can be detrimental to social mobility. They find that youths from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to consider a minor failure, such as performing poorly on a test, as reflective of a bigger failure, and are more likely to give up on overcoming their failures than are those who are more economically privileged. Training teachers to help students develop emotional strength through experiences beyond the classroom, such as volunteering and sports, would be crucial in teaching them not to fear challenges and move forward in their lives.
Lastly, I want to emphasize that we must also examine and attempt to solve inequalities within the educational system itself. It is true that in some aspects, educational systems ironically end up reinforcing social inequalities rather than reducing them. Education qualifications often times serve as means through which many upper-middle class families pass on their socioeconomic advantages. In many countries with developed public school system, it is not uncommon for wealthy families to deliberately relocate to areas that are reputed for having good schools, drive up house prices, and consequently exclude poorer families from access to quality schools. Furthermore, even in higher education, competitive universities are dominated by children of those in the highest economic quintile, who themselves had received elite education. Some critics condemn this paradox of formation of a hereditary meritocratic class, and even take the pessimistic view that all education hinders social mobility. These inequalities within the education system itself are indeed pressing problems that must be tackled, yet they should not discredit the value of education in increasing social fluidity. They are problems to be solved, not excuses for hampering the efforts to increase underprivileged youths’ access to educational opportunities and improve their school experience. We should recognize the importance of education in aiding disadvantaged youths realize their potential and catapult themselves up the socioeconomic spectrum, and continue investing in the future of our society through education.